Training My Eyes

Writing and Photography by Melissa Helser

This week in our Cultivate series, we want to share a piece from Volume IV : Creativity Unlocked written by Cageless Birds founder, Melissa Helser.  Training My Eyes is a series of reflections and photography from the Swiss Alps.  Here you'll find a collection of short prompts encouraging you to be still, feel yourself being surrounded and find that He has filled you with wonder again.  We challenge you to take your time, give into the beauty and let it stretch you.  God is ready to encounter your heart. 


I have loved photography for over seventeen years. When I met Jonathan in 1998, I liked a lot of things but loved very few.  I didn't really know how to love with my whole heart.  I was eighteen and hadn't learned the art of loving something until it gave up its secrets.  Jonathan taught me this.  He has a father who adores photography and has told me countless stories of watching his dad pull over on the side of the road, jump out of the car and run to get a perfect shot of a lovely old farmhouse in Eastern North Carolina, a broken-down barn catching the afternoon light or maybe just a glorious sunset.  His dad has tens of thousands of slides in storage documenting the beauty of their family’s life and his passions.  Because Jonathan was taught to see, I have had the privilege of being taught to see. 

We started taking pictures for fun.  I spent so much time training my eyes and teaching them to see light, color, people.  As I started seeing more clearly, I noticed a connection starting to form between my eyes and my heart.  
I began asking myself questions:

What is important to me? 
What is beautiful to me? 
What do I love? 

Letting the eyes and the heart become connected is what births a true artist, one who can cram heart into anything and inspire humanity to see differently.  This doesn't happen overnight.  It is a slow process of willingness to go the distance, and become a carrier of life.  I fell in love with seeing a moment.  I fell in love with capturing life for people and myself to look at over and over again and remember—remember the light, the laughter, the placement of things and people. 


This love has served me well.  I have pursued it, and it has revealed its secrets.  I have had many seasons of photography, from enjoying the hobby as an amateur, to professionally shooting weddings with Jonathan for seven years, to taking pictures of friends and my children.  I have had all the crazy cool gear.  I have owned film and digital versions of Canon, Nikon, Fuji and Pentax and sold them, bought more and then reduced it all to my iPhone and the 18,000 pictures I have on it right now.  All these years later, I realize that unless you can see, none of that matters.  Unless you risk the one hundred average shots for the one extraordinary, you have learned nothing. 

I take pictures every single day.  I have trained my heart to stop constantly and see, really see.  I don't shoot for a profession anymore, but I shoot for the love of it and for the documentation of my life, to look back and see the proof that I lived a full life. 


On a recent trip to Switzerland, I gave myself a goal: Take more pictures than you normally do.  Push yourself again.  Have your camera everywhere.  Invite the Holy Spirit into your process of seeing.  Let the beauty challenge you and stretch you.  I let myself be overcome by the grandeur of the Alps.  High up in the mountains and low in the valleys, I took it all in.  This time a bit different than times before, maybe because I am getting older or maybe because I am getting younger.  I chose to intentionally cultivate my love.  At thirty-six it felt good to challenge myself again. 

I chose to use a collection of these photos for this volume.  You will see only a handful, but I took close to 1,000.  It isn't that I chose “the best,” but I chose the ones I wanted you to see.

I can still close my eyes and remember the feeling of seeing each shot, pulling out my camera and taking the picture.  I recall the satisfaction of knowing that I captured the essence of Switzerland in the summer, alongside my children and husband. 

I invite you into the way I see as an artist.  I invite you to look at the photographs, take a deep breath and be affected by something that has deeply affected me.


What does it mean to be surrounded?  All sides are covered and clothed.  You are not trapped or bound; you are free to absorb the reality of safety.  You are the boat, and everywhere you look, you are cared for by the tallest peaks.  To be surrounded—really surrounded—requires a deep trust.  Ask the Holy Spirit where He is surrounding you like the mountains, or like the light with the coming dawn.  Take a deep breath.  Let the presence of the Almighty fill you completely. 


To be high up looking down is to be free of reality’s perspective.  Free me from the one way I see…lift my eyes up, up, up.  What was burden becomes beauty.  What was bigger than me disappears into the landscape.  My vantage point does not change what exists, only the heart-posture of how I engage it.  We must learn to stop and see differently.  Mature beyond rigid sight and open up.  He sees all in 360.  From the deep to the shallow and everywhere in between.  Give us fluid, free hearts to be rooted in truth and soar on the wind of His nature. 

Ask the Lord for one place in your life you need His perspective.  Imagine yourself being taken up to where He is.  Look at it again and again, and ask the Father for compassion and grace.  Ask Him to fill you with mercy.  Ask Him to speak to you about it and journal His voice. Never underestimate the simplicity of surrendering your perspective to Jesus.

boundary lines-300.jpg

We took a gondola 7,000 feet up, got off and climbed even further.  I was overcome with the reality that someone made a way for us to be this high.  Someone had built a fence on the highest point of that mountain.  When we climbed to the top, I grabbed the metal frame tight and took in the grandeur of the the entire countryside.  There was a straight drop down the back side.  I watched my little girl run around the top with no fear; instantly I was impacted by the presence of the boundary line.  Healthy boundaries create permission to go to places we could never go.  They release us to enjoy moments that would have otherwise been impossible.

"The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;
 surely I have a delightful inheritance. " 
Psalm 16:6, NIV

Where is the Lord putting boundaries lines in your life?  Where have you misinterpreted them as a fence to keep you from something, when the truth is they are releasing you into fullness?  Ask the Holy Spirit to show you the power and gift of boundaries in your life.

the climb2-300.jpg
the climb1-300.jpg

One step, two steps…climb higher and higher.  Sometimes it is easier to look down at your feet.  Sometimes it is easier to focus on each individual step.  You can’t see the top or where you're going.  But you know you will get there eventually.  Sometimes one foot in front of the other is all we need to get to the place we are heading. 

I don't like to complicate the climb.  I also don't like to diminish what it takes.  

I believe courage is always growing in the belly of every human.  We don't always listen to it; we often romanticize it. Courage looks like one step, two steps…it looks like consistency and choice.  It looks like breathing in and breathing out.  And then it looks like the wind in your face and the vista in the reflection of your eyes.  All of the sudden it feels like, I did it and I can do it again.  You climb down and start over.

Sit down and recognize where you are in a "climb.”  Breathe in the beauty of your courage.  Let the delight of the Lord fill your lungs.  Ask the Holy Spirit to give you strength and teach you how to breathe deeply and take simple steps.

growing older-300.jpg

I walked up on him, my tall, sweet fourteen-year-old.  He was taking it all in, and I was taking him in.  How did he get so old?  The thought rushed over me so quickly and made me sad just for a moment.  We are always growing older, every season and every moment.  I began to think about the fact that he has been with me for over fourteen years and the whole time he was growing older.  When he was a baby, we would look to the next seasons of life with anticipation. When will he walk, talk, be old enough for a conversation?  Now I walk up on him breathing in the Swiss Alps like an old, wise soul.  When I first became a mother, the Holy Spirit spoke to me, “Savor every day, from the mundane to the mountain peaks.”  This charge has led me so well; it has taught me the glory of living a simple, intentional life.  Savoring has become my life message as a wife, mother, friend and leader. 

Sometimes we want life to speed up, and then all of a sudden we want it to slow down.  I wonder at what age it all changes and instead of looking forward, we start looking back.  I wonder if it is possible to live a life so alive and full that regret never has permission to have an audience with us.  I wonder if our lives could be so consumed with beauty and intentionality every day that we only looked back with joy and fondness at the memory of our lives. 

Ask the Holy Spirit to begin to remove regret from your life.  Ask Him to give you the grace and desire to live every day completely engaged, that you would love all the moments, great or small, and find fullness in this human experience. 

CultivateSydnee MelaComment